Roaring Fork River silenced |

Roaring Fork River silenced

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

With the Roaring Fork River through Aspen reduced to a trickle, the city is hoping it can negotiate a deal with the Salvation Ditch Co. to leave some water in the riverbed.

Currently, the ditch company is diverting virtually all of the water flowing down the river into its canal, leaving a stretch of the riverbed high and dry and the trout stuck in dwindling pools.

Officials from the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the Roaring Fork Conservancy were in Aspen last week to study the situation.

From the ditch’s head gate near Stillwater Road southeast of town to the point at which Castle Creek and, farther down, Maroon Creek augment the river, the Roaring Fork is flowing at an imperceptible level.

“What we need is for the Salvation Ditch Co. to leave in some water – put it back in the river,” said City Manager Steve Barwick.

The city has approached the company about whether Aspen could lease some of the ditch company’s water and send it down the river, according to Mayor Helen Klanderud.

“We would like to discuss with them the possibility of them cutting back on some of their take,” she said. “I think the request is appropriate – can you cut back on what is rightfully yours in this emergency situation?”

The ditch company has sought the advice of its water attorney before it does anything, according to Mary Jane Garth of Woody Creek, company president.

Drought conditions have already reduced flows on the Roaring Fork to what may be record lows, according to Phil Overeynder, the city’s utility director.

Flows at a monitoring station located just above the ditch company’s head gate indicated the river was flowing at 21 cubic feet per second on Monday morning. It dropped as low as 19 cfs over the weekend, Overeynder said.

“As far as I know, that’s the lowest since 1977,” he said, referring to a legendary drought year.

The ditch company had been diverting water at a steady rate of 24 cfs, until the entire flow in the river dropped below that level, according to Overeynder.

Now, essentially all of the water in the river is being diverted into the ditch. Only water that is leaking past the headgate is making it into the river.

The ditch and the company’s water rights date back nearly 100 years. Water is diverted from the Roaring Fork and carried across the base of Smuggler Mountain, across Hunter Creek, across the face of Red Mountain and, finally, onto the parched land of McLain Flats and beyond, where it is used for irrigation.

At several points, water that isn’t used is returned to the river, Overeynder said.

Although the Colorado Water Conservation Board owns instream flow rights designed to protect the ecology of the river, the Salvation Ditch Co. rights precede the instream-flow protections by decades.

“They are doing what’s perfectly within their rights,” Overeynder said.

The instream flow established for a healthy Roaring Fork is 32 cfs.

In checking records back to the mid-1960s, Overeynder said he noted 11 years in which there was no problem meeting the 32 cfs minimum stream flow. In 10 years, the flow dropped below that threshold for two to six weeks; there were 13 years in which the flow fell below 32 cfs for six to 10 weeks and one year – 1977 – in which the flow dropped below that mark for more than 10 weeks.

“I think this year, we’ll probably surpass that,” he said.

The conditions have not gone unnoticed by the Division of Wildlife, though no added fishing restrictions have been put into effect for the Roaring Fork.

Alan Czenkusch, aquatic biologist with the DOW in Glenwood Springs, and Rick Lofaro, water quality coordinator for the Roaring Fork Conservancy, were in Aspen on Friday to check on the river.

Water temperatures in the 60- to 65-degree range were recorded where the river is running.

“Given how warm it’s been, that’s pretty good,” Czenkusch said. In the depleted stretch below the Salvation diversion, however, the water temperature was 70 degrees in one pool. Water warmer than 65 degrees is cause for concern for the DOW because trout populations begin to show the cumulative effects of stress.

Czenkusch said he didn’t observe any dead fish during his visit.

He and Lofaro came up with three options to aid stranded trout. The best bet is to leave more water in the river, Czenkusch said.

It may be that the ditch company has the ability, within its water rights, to use some of its water for recreation, fish or wildlife purposes, which would allow it to leave water in the river, Czenkusch said.

Colorado’s complex water rights laws contain a “use it or lose it” provision that makes it difficult to leave a water right unused, Lofaro explained. “We have water users taking their water as they have a legal right to. They need to in order to have those rights in the future.”

“Hey, if I was trying to grow hay and I had a water right, I’d be taking all the water I could, too,” Czenkusch said.

A second option is construction of a temporary “fish ladder” at the dam where the ditch headgate is located, which could let trout near the dam reach the deeper water behind the structure. A fish ladder is a stepped series of pools that allow fish to jump up over a dam.

The least-favored option is a “salvage” operation – organizing a volunteer effort to catch stranded trout and release them upstream.

“Just the stress of being chased around, netted, put in buckets and moved – they’d probably end up killing as many fish as they saved,” Czenkusch said.

What Czenkusch does not want to see is individuals netting trout and moving them to spring-fed ponds or elsewhere.

The Roaring Fork has tested positive for whirling disease, a parasitic infection that can decimate young trout populations.

“We don’t want people to be out there moving fish and moving the disease with them,” Czenkusch said.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is]

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